With summertime upon us, it’s an excellent time to enjoy the outdoors and reap the benefits of hiking. Even better, hiking can be an activity for the entire family. Everyone bonds and gets the physical and mental health benefits of spending time outside. Plus, kids can let their energy out and enjoy more freedom.
Unlike staying on a bike path or sharing playground equipment, hiking is something that parents don’t have to micromanage, says Maria Sechrist, who manages the site Hike Snowmass and takes her two children (ages 1 ½ and 3) on hikes with her husband. “Tell the kids, ‘Go ahead, you be the leader,’ and they’ll feel like they are in charge, deciding where to go and when to take breaks,” she says.
No matter your children’s ages, you can all enjoy hiking with the expert tips below.
Choose the right trail. “My husband and I have the attitude of ‘aim low,’” Sechrist says. “We’d rather the kids have fun than reach a waterfall or hike a certain number of miles.” So put aside your interests and think: How long can you keep your kids’ attention during a hike? Then pick a trail that you can complete in less time than that. Once you know your children can do, say, a half-hour hike, build up from there.
Also be sure the conditions aren’t too difficult for your little ones. A short rock scramble might be fun for them to climb over, but if you pick a trail that’s too challenging, they won’t enjoy it. “Trying to convince them to go for another hike will be less likely,” says Wesley Trimble, communications and creative director for the American Hiking Society, who hikes with his 3-year-old.
And of course check that the trail will be safe and doesn’t have steep drop-offs or other potential risks. Consider checking out Hike It Baby, Hiking Project, or AllTrails for trail rankings to help you find the best one, Trimble suggests.
Pack snacks. Load up on hiking-friendly foods your kids love. “Having some of their favorites will help keep them energized and excited on the trail,” Trimble says. And don’t forget water or juice too.
Check their shoes. Children don’t need hiking boots. The investment isn’t worth it since their feet can grow quickly when they’re young, Trimble says. Instead, always pick closed shoes (no sandals or flip-flops) so dirt and rocks are less likely to intrude on their comfort. Next, check that the shoes are secure but not too tight and that their toes have room to wiggle. Most importantly, examine the treads of the shoes. Choose ones that aren’t worn so your kids won’t slip around.
Consider layers (or not). Trimble recommends packing layers to be sure your children (particularly any tiny ones in carriers) stay warm on the trail. On the other hand, Sechrist says to leave extra clothes and diapers in the car and simply hike only when it’s nice out and you won’t need to carry additional layers.
Keep your kids engaged. A hike can test your children’s attention spans. To prevent boredom, consider their personalities, Trimble says. “Some kids want to explore rather than travel down the trail,” he says. If that’s the case, let them check out the creek, play on a stump, or examine every flower.
Or if your kids are very creative and imaginative, consider telling stories along the way, perhaps featuring their favorite characters.
You can also play games like I Spy or go through the alphabet and try to find things in nature for every letter, Trimble says. For hard letters like Q, look for things in the shape of either that letter or objects that start with that letter. Or you can simply look for cool sticks or rocks.
Monitor their moods. Young ones will naturally tire sooner than the parents. You can always pick a trail that has various branches to allow you to cut the hike short if necessary, Sechrist says. Also, have the patience to more frequent breaks (especially as time goes on) and go at a slower pace, Trimble says.
Lastly, stay ahead of the game. “If you start to hear an uptick in whining or you have to try to keep them engaged more often, that signals that you are going to be running up against tiredness,” Sechrist says. “Be ready to call it quits and turn around.”
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.